Pizza! Pizza! Pizza! Pizza! ― The Top 4 Chains Battle It Out

February 7, 2018 Kathy Bryan

Battling for their slice of the $43.5 billion dollar U.S. pizza market, the top four pizza chains regularly find themselves going head to head for the dough. 

In fact, two of the top chains (Pizza Hut and Papa John’s) are literally fighting – in court – over who can claim to use the best ingredients, while Pizza Hut and Domino’s playfully lampoon each other’s business strategies. 

From ordering and delivery methods to marketing campaigns that resonate, leading pizza chains are at the forefront of ecommerce, customer service, logistics and advertising innovations. Here’s a look at what we’ve seen lately from America’s favorite pizza brands.

Note: Sales and unit volume are 2017 numbers published by Pizza Today.

#1 ― Pizza Hut

$14.1 billion in gross sales across 16,409 units.

Though not an official sponsor, in 2016, Pizza Hut celebrated the 50th Super Bowl with 50 gold-flaked pizzas. Awarded to randomly selected individuals who ordered a Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza, the gold pizzas were delivered in golden boxes that included $100 Pizza Hut gift cards. But perhaps gold was not enough to get fans excited. After holding the top spot for years, Pizza Hut was downgraded to #2 in early 2017 according to a Harris Poll study based on familiarity, quality and purchase consideration ratings.

However, the demotion was before Yum Brands invested $130 million to revitalize the Pizza Hut brand and boost same-store sales. Later in 2017, Pizza Hut rolled out a system that promised to keep their pies 15-degrees hotter during delivery. And they launched their “Everyman” campaign with Kristin Wiig channeling a variety of characters to show how Pizza Hut is a brand for everyone to enjoy.

For Super Bowl LII, Pizza Hut promised to give away free pizza to Hut Rewards members if a touchdown was scored within the first 14 seconds of the game. It was a pretty safe bet, since that feat has been performed only once – by Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears in 2007.

Pizza Hut also employed Terrell Owens, former Dallas Cowboys player, as a “professional boaster” for one of their pre-Super Bowl commercials this year. Owens detailed how the Garcia family of four “just used Hut Rewards to earn free pizzas so fast you just missed it while you were waitin’ around playing dominoes.” And across social media, they reminded their customers to “not settle for a piece of the pie.”

Wait… did Pizza Hut poke fun at their competitor? That’s for you to decide.

#2 ― Domino’s

$10.5 billion in gross sales across 14,000 units.

Domino’s advertising has been bold since the 1980s, when they promised “Noid-proof” pizzas with guaranteed delivery in 30 minutes or less. Their commercials were memorable, but their pies were not. In 2009, Domino’s launched an improved product after admitting to horrible pizzas.

One year later, playing off of the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign, Domino’s promoted advertising that was free of “Photoshop trickery” and encouraged consumers to share pictures of their pizzas via social media. The pizza-focused strategy was tremendously successful, boosting the Domino’s stock by 5000% from 2018 to 2017.

Over the years, Domino’s also experimented with ordering options including Facebook messenger, billboards with augmented reality and Instagram-based games. They’ve even launched a baby registry, allowing parents-to-be to request Domino’s gift cards.

Domino’s is also testing out innovative delivery methods, including the use of self-driving vehicles. During the summer of 2017, Domino’s teamed up with Ford to deliver pizzas throughout Ann Arbor, Michigan via Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicles. Though manually operated by Ford safety engineers and staffed with researchers, the cars appeared driverless to Domino’s customers who were able to track their pizzas with GPS and had to use a code to unlock the Domino’s Heatwave Compartment to snag their order.

Throughout 2017, Domino’s was creative with their marketing as well:

  • To promote the Piece of the Pie Rewards program, 25 members were awarded 10 free shares of Domino’s stock each month from January through November.
  • Joe Keery of Stranger Things was employed to reenact Matthew Broderick’s role in a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off campaign that culminated with a free showing of the movie on Facebook Live to garner buzz and distribute a 20% off coupon code.
  • Pizza “insurance” was launched to guarantee carryout orders, even after they leave the store. For two hours, pizzas can be brought back (uneaten, in the original packaging) for any reason, to be replaced with a new pizza.

Since 2010, Domino’s stock growth has outpaced that of giants like Amazon, Apple and Google. The CEO responsible for the company’s turnaround, Patrick Doyle, is leaving the team later this year. Richard Allison, currently President of Domino’s international business, will be taking the helm. We’re all looking forward to seeing the innovations he spearheads across marketing, customer service and more.

#3 ― Papa John’s

$3.7 billion in gross sales across 5,097 units.

“Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” has been the tagline for Papa John’s since the mid-1990s, and they continue to maintain the focus on quality versus price.

Last year, coming from Wendy’s, Brandon Rhoten joined the Papa John’s team as their new Global CMO touting a marketing approach centered around quality pizza. According to Rhoten, “The brand position of Papa John’s is the idea that you get a better pizza. It’s not a commodity play. It’s not the cheapest; it’s not the one with the most technology to get it to you. It’s not about the gimmick. It’s not about the price. It’s about the actual food you put in your mouth.”

Using their “simpler” platform, Papa John’s threw a couple of punches at Domino’s last year. Though they didn’t mention their rival by name, they commented on Domino’s self-driving delivery experiments while stating their belief that pizza sales should be based on a “simpler premise.”

This year, Papa John’s created a no-frills pre-Super Bowl BOGO offer with TV spots starring Peyton Manning (a Papa John’s franchisee) and Joe Montana. Like other pizza brands, Papa John’s did not have any commercials during the game itself. As explained by Bob Kraut, Papa John’s CMO, “A lot of new and emerging companies have been established via the Super Bowl. That’s why you’d want to advertise in the Super Bowl. Right now, it just doesn’t fit for us. We’re well established; we’re a brand that looks and acts bigger than we are.”

As for the rest of the year, we anticipate Papa John’s will be “simply” focused on promoting their pizza. Though, it’ll be interesting to see if they get deeper into the battle being waged by Pizza Hut and Domino’s.

#4 ― Little Caesars

$3.6 billion in gross sales across 4,456 units.

After launching the popular “Pizza! Pizza!” campaign in the 1980s, Little Caesars went quiet for 15 years. They finally returned to national advertising in 2012. Last year, Little Caesars launched a campaign that went viral while successfully communicating their low prices. In the TV spot, a son demoted his “#1 Dad” to just “Dad” after he admits, “I got a terrible deal on pizza.”

Here’s a look:

Little Caesars has done a remarkable job of staying at the top of the pizza chain rankings with limited marketing. Known for their $5 pizzas, it’s clear sometimes people buy based on price.


So Who Is Winning the Pizza War?

There’s no one right answer. The top four pizza chains are all appealing to their unique audiences in their own ways. Though campaigns like “Everyman” by Pizza Hut are intended to steal extra slices from the competition, the top four have not wavered much over the years.

Interestingly, loyalty programs seem to be playing a more significant role in pizza sales. Both Pizza Hut and Domino’s have invested in generating awareness of their programs’ benefits.

Loyalty programs provide win-win opportunities for brands and their customers. The data collected through the programs allow marketers to better personalize messaging, and the customers get better, more-targeted offers (and often free product) as a result.


There Is Enough Pie to Go Around.

Team DMS helps many brands build their loyalty program databases. Contact us via this form to learn more.


About the Author

Kathy Bryan

Kathy Bryan is the Chief Marketing Officer at Digital Media Solutions (DMS). In this role, Kathy is responsible for all aspects of marketing and communications for DMS, the leading global martech company leveraging innovative, performance-driven brand and marketplace solutions to connect consumers and advertisers.

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